If I'm going to be honest, I must admit that I sometimes look at fathers who have never lost a child with a bit of envy. I wish that I, too, could experience the joys and challenges of fatherhood outside the gloom of child loss. However, if there's anything positive to be taken from what I've been through, it's that I have a newfound awareness that has made me a better father to my other children. While I hope no father who reads this ever knows the pain of losing a child, I do hope that if I share what I have learned, others might take away a new perspective about how lucky we are to be fathers.
Parent without regret.
I have a lot of friends who say that while their fathers are terrific today, this wasn't always the case. This isn't because their fathers were bad men, but because it takes a quantum leap in maturity to go from caring for only yourself and your spouse to caring for a child as well. Many men aren't ready to make that leap right away and need a number of years to mature into the kind of father they can be proud of. When you lose a child, though, you never get the chance to become a better parent to that child. Who you were when they were alive will always be the father you were to them.
Thankfully, the 68 days my daughter, Maddie, spent in the NICU after she was born made me grow up in a hurry, and I was a very loving and involved father during her 17 months of life. But I still have regrets. In the weeks before Maddie passed away, my wife, Heather, invited me to join them on a play date at the park, but after a long week of work, I begged off so that I could veg out on the couch. Knowing that I passed up one of my daughter's last Saturdays in the sun is something I feel terribly guilty about. So I ask fathers this: If your child were to die tomorrow, would you be able to look yourself in the mirror and say you were the parent you wanted to be? It's a sobering question to ponder, but an important one. Fatherhood is happening right now; embrace it fully from the start.
Take care of yourself.
One of the most important lessons I learned after the birth of my second daughter, Annabel, was that in order for me to care for her to the best of my abilities, I needed to care for myself. To do that, I had to continue to address my grief and make sure I never let it overwhelm me. I realized that it was going to be difficult enough for Annabel to grow up in a home that had lost a child, and the last thing I wanted was for her to tell me one day that, because I was preoccupied with grief, I wasn't the father she needed. As difficult as it is to live with grief, it's my problem, and it should never become hers.
Most fathers don't have to deal with child loss, but they may have other issues they need to address such as substance abuse, depression or anger issues (to name a few). Every father owes it to his children to deal with -- and conquer -- whatever issue he may have.
Be patient with your spouse.
Having children changes your life dramatically and brings with it many new responsibilities. When the demands of parenting become overwhelming, it's all too easy to take it out on your partner and argue over insignificant things like who changed the last diaper. My wife and I sometimes bickered over things like that in the past, but not anymore. Having lost a child, we now view each dirty diaper, tantrum and spilled glass of milk with gratitude, because we know all too well what the alternative is. We still have our disagreements, of course, but we try to resolve them with kindness, patience and love. Having seen each other go through the deepest depths of despair, we want only to support each other, and by doing that we're creating a stable environment for our children to grow up in.
Be kind to yourself.
Lastly, I could dwell on the mistakes I made with Madeline (like skipping that last Saturday at the park), but I've learned that nothing good comes from that. Instead, I focus on happy memories and the incredible love Maddie and I shared. Parenting is difficult. Today, even with everything I've been through, I still make mistakes. When I do, though, I don't beat myself up. I pledge to learn from the mistake and do better tomorrow. In parenting there is no clear victory, but as long as you're fully invested in your children and trying your best, you will be at peace with yourself no matter how long -- or short -- your children are in this world.